You are in a cryotherapy room, awoken by a smiling AI who has a little task for you to take care of before you go back to sleep. Of course, you will comply.
The game begins on a one-person ship called the Silver Lining. A ship called the Charitable Donation had gone missing and reappeared without any sign of its crew. Survivors? That is for you to figure out. The Charitable Donation is a research ship designed to be a floating lab in space to conduct experiments deemed too dangerous to perform on a planet. Behind this looms CORPORATION UNLIMITED, a mega-corporation that holds modern society in its palm.
After waking up from cryosleep you are briefed on your mission by DOC, the standard AI built into CORPORATION UNLIMITED’s ships. You learn that you are a Reclamation Unit (and human, even if CORPORATION UNLIMITED does not act that way. Speaking of which, the game insists on spelling that in all caps so I will do the same!) and can even choose your serial number. I was Reclamation Unit #7. How exciting!
It is slick how the game incorporates a general parser tutorial into the game by having DOC test your motor and cognitive skills as you re-orient yourself. It is a tutorial that does not seem like a tutorial even though you obviously know it is one. It is super short, so it does not drag on for players who know what to do.
This is time travel game. I want to be careful but do not consider that to be a spoiler because it is established early on and is the focal point of the gameplay. Soon after boarding the Charitable Donation, you trigger a time loop that sends you back to the cryotherapy room in 50 turns. Using clues found on the ship you try to identify tasks and complete them before the counter runs out. Then it’s back to cryotherapy.
I like how the solutions are revealed in layers. There was never a point where I was unsure of what to do. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) the captain left a password in her room along with a message saying that hints for a second password could be found on her computer. I knew that this was my immediate objective, and the information from this puzzle had clear applications in the rest of the gameplay. The crew literally lays it out for the player. They even give you a (Spoiler - click to show) passwords log that you can carry in the time loop without losing it.
The game does use some cliches such as learning about the story largely through journal entries (extra points because it is on a spaceship). But what makes Reclamation different is that you are not merely reading things that were abandoned. (Spoiler - click to show) Those entries are for you. The crew wants you to find them. Suddenly, these entries are no longer optional deposits of story exposition. They take an active role in the gameplay which gives them an edge. Plus, the amount of material, I feel, is reasonable.
Not just another time travel game
When I play time travel games, I sometimes find myself placing them into two categories (I know, there are plenty of games out there that do not fit either one). In the first, the player can navigate the timeline and are free to decide when to leave. Often, the protagonist rides around in a physical machine that they operate. There are no time-based restraints that control the gameplay. Examples include First Things First and Roger’s Day Off.
The other category focuses on a time loop that the player cannot control, such as Reclamation. Some of the best time travel games out there use this approach, although it can be difficult to map out the passage of time relative to the gameplay. I think of games like Möbius which are high quality but features a (welcome) challenge with matching the time loop with the player’s turn count. In Reclamation, time travel is streamlined and easy to visualize. If you compare time travel games, you will get a sense of what I mean. I am not bothered by accepting hints, but I am pleased to say that there was never a point where I needed to use them.
Even better, Reclamation adds a unique premise to its portrayal of time travel that also provides an integrated explanation as to why the player is always sent back to the cryotherapy room. The logic is that (Spoiler - click to show) if you are in a lab and perform a time loop that resets, say, after an hour, you will not end up in the lab. Instead, when it resets you are sent to the location where you previously woke up (unless you sleep in the lab, of course). This unpredictability was a side effect that the crew could not control and noted the dangers it could pose. As for the player, because they woke up in the cryotherapy room that is where they are transported. I thought that this was a creative way of tying parts of the game together.
Reclamation takes place in the 22nd century and has familiar dystopian themes in its storyline. It reminds me a bit of Vicious Cycles, another parser (made with Inform) time travel game that considers the ethical implications of a vast corporate entity having the sole access to technology that can alter time. The player is stuck in a time loop that repeats until they find a conclusion. In both stories the creators of said technology start to have second thoughts about their work.
We know that CORPORATION UNLIMITED calls the shots when it comes to scientific progress, but you can only go so far before people snap. (Spoiler - click to show) Discovering how to create a temporal time loop was not enough. According to the captain’s correspondence, CORPORATION UNLIMITED wanted the research team to stay longer in space to develop a way of building this time travel technology into a nifty hand-held device.
By now everyone had figured out how this technology would be used. (Spoiler - click to show) CORPORATION UNLIMITED planned to put people in temporal time loops to maximize productivity. Time spent in the loop would feel like nothing to everyone outside it. You could get a year's worth of productivity instantaneously at the expense of people working away in the loop like a hamster on a hamster wheel. The crew of the Charitable Donation (such a cynical name, really) (Spoiler - click to show) have no intention enabling people to be turned into temporal hamsters, let alone accessorizing the technology for CORPORATION UNLIMITED's convenience. And so, the crew decided to destroy their own research. Discreetly.
Of course, that leads to (Spoiler - click to show) the question of, “where did everyone go?” The crew disabled their AI and made a small temporal copy of their ship and are hiding in it. The crew figured that CORPORATION UNLIMITED would investigate by sending a Reclamation Unit and decided to initiate a time loop to keep the protagonist from dallying with the corporation and instead follow the crew’s instructions to submit a report saying that the destruction of the time travel technology was an accident.
I have one question. It is about the (Spoiler - click to show) cat. Why did they not bring the cat with them? Was this intentional? Djamila's datapad says, "Once the cat was out of the bag,” which typically is a figure of speech, but I wonder if this is also a reference to the ship’s cat (who is named Pluto, by the way).
This is a world where everyone is formally identified by their job position and a number. You, for instance, are a mere Reclamation Unit (at least you get to choose the number). On record, the crewmembers of the Charitable Donation are units too, but their casual correspondence reveals lively personalities with real human names. The crew is interesting even though we never seen them in person. By reading their messages it really felt like they were guiding you along.
And no, (Spoiler - click to show) DOC is not on your side. He kind of reminds me of Georgie from lighthouse.
This is an Adventuron game that utilizes some basic visuals. A built-in map is added for the player’s convenience. The map shows an outline of the Charitable Donation with boxes representing rooms. Nothing fancy, but practical. The screen also turns white as the time loop restarts and sends you back to the cryotherapy room which creates an intense effect.
There is one other visual besides the map: DOC, the ship AI. He is a cheery hologram of a beaker with a face, glasses, and a red bowtie. He is filled with blue liquid. (Spoiler - click to show) Despite his appearance do NOT trust him.
This game has all the tropes: Cryogenic suspension at the start of the game, a single all-powerful megacorporation, a mysterious and seemingly abandoned spaceship, a mainframe AI, frequent use of journal entries, and time-travel thrown in for fun. And yet, it takes these tropes and sews them together into something novel and fun. While Reclamation has many similarities with other games, it feels like an original piece. It offers gameplay challenges without being too difficult and was rewarding to complete. There are two endings, and the (Spoiler - click to show) Humanitarian ending was brief but quite human.
Even if an NPC-less scavenger hunt in a dead spaceship is not of interest to you, Reclamation may surprise you with its player-oriented gameplay and interesting story.